Scott Brooks was asked pregame what the key was to tonight’s Game 1 against the Rockets.
“Playing well,” he started, in your typical Scott Brooks non-answer way.
But really, when you look at this series, it’s pretty much as simple as that. If the Thunder play well — on both ends — the Rockets are essentially sunk. And tonight, the Thunder played well. More importantly too, they helped the Rockets play very, very poorly.
The best way to make the Rockets play bad? Stop James Harden. The Thunder harassed him again, which resulted in a dismal 6-19 shooting performance that included only three second half points. Harden though wasn’t really keen to give OKC credit for it, instead citing Houston’s lack of experience and nerves.
“Believe it or not, this was good for us. Losing like this was definitely good for us,” Harden said. “Now we know how to play. This was a lot of guys’ first time here in the playoffs, we were kind of shellshocked … I think it was more the first time, just being here. Just being in a playoff atmosphere, being on the road.”
Said Perk of Harden’s reasoning: “Sounds like a personal problem.”
The Thunder set a strong defensive tone from the tip, holding the Rockets to just two points over nearly the first six minutes and without a basket for almost seven. Serge Ibaka brought ample amounts of energy, swatting shots, grabbing rebounds, hitting jumpers. Russell Westbrook was in Russell Mode, also known as “attack mode” to others. And was KD was operating in full rhythm, pacing OKC’s offense.
But the Rockets finally settled down and the Thunder got sloppy. Houston knotted the game at 40-40 in the second quarter, appearing to survive a tidal wave of emotion and energy from OKC’s hot start. Except as the Thunder tend to do, they exploded on a 20-7 run to close the half, then followed it up with a 14-7 spurt to begin the third.
The Rockets clearly had problems not only containing OKC’s speed and power, but solving the Thunder’s defensive puzzle. Kevin McHale talked postgame about the Thunder’s clever defensive strategy that involved switching a lot of screens, specifically big to small, which sort of baited Houston’s ballhandlers into isolation and caused them to stop moving the ball.
“We got stagnant,” he said. “Guys started pressing a little bit. They were switching stuff and guys were trying to take people as opposed to trying to make a quick, hard drive, pass, pass. We didn’t get a lot of pass-pass combinations. We didn’t have a whole lot of flow offensively.
“That’s given us problems off and on all year,” McHale said. “If we’re not back-cutting and moving the ball against the switches and driving the switch quick and moving it, it’s given us problems off and on all year, and they did a pretty good job of that.”
The Thunder know Harden’s tendencies and he’s prone to fall into one-on-one games where he tries to break down defenses all on his own. But the Thunder’s strategy appeared to switch every screen that Durant or Ibaka were involved in, then they added Perk to that equation when the ballhandler was anyone but Harden. The Thunder’s bigs are extremely solid perimeter defenders, and Houston’s guards were a beat slow on making decisions with the ball.
“Certain ones we switch. I ain’t gonna tell you which ones,” Perk said. “But we do work on that at practice. It wasn’t a gameplan, it just happens. I think coach a lot of confidence in everyone on the court that we could guard every position whether it’s a big on a small, so you only got to slide your feet for five or six seconds so you can do that.”
It’s just one game and it takes three more to advance. But in a series many were trying to justify as potential upset fodder, the Thunder made a very loud statement. The Rockets were overwhelmed and overmatched, and simply had no answer for the constant pressure OKC put on them. Like Harden said, maybe it’s good for them to take a whipping and then regroup.
Or maybe it’s just a reality check.
- Harden in his two trips to Oklahoma City this season: 37 points on 9-35 shooting.
- Westbrook on playing Harden: “It’s fun. I mean, James is a competitor. He’s got his own team now so he’s going to come out and compete. You know me and Kevin are here trying to compete for our team as well. It’s a good feeling, but at the same time we’re trying to win.”
- Durant: “It felt a little awkward. Just looking across there during the national anthem and seeing him with another team. But we gotta get past that. We’re competing against his team and he wants to win so bad. We know him personally so we know how hard he competes and he knows how hard we compete. So it’s fun, it’s fun to play against him. But it was a little different seeing him in another uniform, but hey, we’ve got to move on to the next game and we’ll see how it plays out.”
- The Thunder’s second unit definitely slipped in the first half. OKC was up 20-8 with 2:19 left in the first, then watched the Rockets rip off a 30-18 run over the next eight minutes. Relevant: Derek Fisher was on the floor for six of those minutes.
- The Thunder’s starting five was plain dominant. In 17 minutes, they outscored Houston 45-21, to end up a +24. OKC’s next best lineup was a +8 (Jackson, Fisher, Martin, Durant, Collison).
- McHale: “It seemed like a bit of a nervy start for us.”
- Perk’s flawless fast break and lob to Ibaka was splendid, but it started with an outrageous steal by Westbrook. Said Perk of it, “First time, I was about to push it but I gave it up and Russ told me to push it all the way. So he gave me the confidence so I had to do it.”
- Almost the first thing out of Durant’s mouth tonight postgame was “We’ve got to do a lot better.”
- Derek Fisher’s iso 3 right in Chandler Parsons’ and my face made him 3-4 from deep in 12 minutes.
- Perk on Ibaka’s swat on Harden being a tone-setter: “Yeah, I heard him scream a little bit. So it might’ve been.”
- KD on Westbrook: “There’s nobody like this guy. The kind of pressure he puts on other point guards, how strong he is, how quick he is. He never stops.”
- Westbrook: 19-8-10 in 30 minutes.
- KD was a +34 tonight.
- Another fan made a halfcourt shot, the third of the season. He had to go and make it awkward though by running over to the Thunder’s bench after he made it.
- Westbrook crossing Beverley was just filthy. Too bad a bad offensive foul call wiped out an excellent highlight.
- After a hard drive to the bucket in the first half, Westbrook wanted a foul call and grabbed at his face. He stopped for a second to start his typical complain-and-hold-his-face-squinting move, but immediately caught himself as the Rockets tried to break, and sprinted back on defense. Nice to see that.
- Jeremy Lin tossed up a stinker tonight. Just 1-7 for four points, three assists and four turnovers.
- The Rockets shot 36 3s, made only eight. OKC shot 24, made 10.
- Things easier than staying in front of Russell Westbrook: catching a live hummingbird, holding the wind, listening to a Nickelback start start to finish. I mean seriously, that coast-to-coast at the end of the third quarter? RIDICULOUS.
- Serge Ibaka was a monster in the middle. Just dominant. Considering the Thunder’s existing roster, if there was ever a choice, based on tonight’s game, I think it’s pretty clear who OKC should’ve extended.
- Harden’s ability to draw fouls, or at least make non-fouls LOOK like fouls, is incredible. It’s not really flopping, it’s just selling. Insanely frustrating. I just want to apologize to the rest of the league for not realizing this the last couple years.
- I feared a little playoff complacency from the crowd, but they showed up. Big time. Loud and enthusiastic from the tip.
- Reaction for Harden was probably 60 percent boos, 40 percent cheers.
- Rob Clay is pretty much the best national anthemer there is. Big fan.
- If you watch closely, Perk actually loses the ball almost every time he goes up for a hook shot, then regathers and sort of taps it. Amazing he doesn’t make more, right?
- KD was asked why his family were basically the only ones in the arena not wearing the free shirt: “That’s my fault. I got get on that tonight. They gotta participate. I got it next game.”
- The halftime show was the Olate Dogs, also known as THE BEST FREAKING HALFTIME SHOW EVER. Basically, it was dogs walking around like people. A dog jumped rope for a while. Then another pushed around a little one on a scooter. I wanted the entire third quarter to just be more of that.
- I don’t know what the song was played during the Thunder’s intros, but it was absolutely perfect. Awesome choice. Bravo, DJ Boom.
- On the Thunder’s locker room whiteboard pregame: “Enjoy the 48 minutes!!” I think they did.
- Random pregame thought: You know how Rick Pitino motivated his team by telling them he’d get a tattoo if they won the title? If OKC wins it all, I think Russ should get to pick Scott Brooks’ wardrobe for all of next season. Or at least the season opener.
Next up: Game 2 in OKC on Wednesday.